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The stories of the exploits of Elizabethan explorers and sailors, the discovery of new lands in the Americas, and the first voyages to Virginia have often been told. Everyone knows about the famous characters in this history, but there are many lesser-known members who played significant roles. In this new biography by Jane Darlow, we learn of one of them, Captain Christopher Newport.
History has not paid particular attention to Newport, and his name is not as commonly heard of as many of his contemporaries of the 16th and early 17th centuries. But his unique contribution to history commenced when he was appointed by the Virginia Company to carry the first settlers to the shores of Chesapeake Bay to establish what became the first permanent English Settlement in the Americas. His subsequent trading voyages to the East Indies added to his maritime reputation and help us to understand how by the time of his death after a lifetime at sea he had earned the accolade of “worthy seaman and commander”.
Christopher Newport was born in Harwich, a port on the east coast of England, when Elizabeth I had been on the throne for only three years. In a way, his story encapsulates the Elizabethan Age and the growth of England’s sea power as well as its determination to quell its mortal enemy: Catholic Spain.
He also witnessed the country’s efforts to extend its island boundaries and influence across the world by claiming lands in a newly explored country that Sir Walter Raleigh named “Virginia,” after the Virgin Queen.
At the age of 19, Newport joined a trading expedition to Brazil but was forced to jump ship because of a dispute with the captain over the terrible conditions on board. From then on, he seems never to have left the sea except for short periods, and on one occasion for a whole year after he fell ill. In his 20s, he became a privateer, operating in the Caribbean and the Spanish Main.
In his 30s, he fought alongside Sir Francis Drake against the Armada and captured one of the largest Portuguese treasure ships, the Madre de Deus returning from the East with a cargo worth about $40 million today. During his 40s, in possibly the most important task of his life, Newport took the first settlers to Jamestown and resupplied them on four grueling transatlantic voyages over the next four years.
In his 50s, he sailed for the East India Company to trade in India and the Spice Islands, where he died in Bantam on Java at the age of 56. In the process of his life’s adventures, Newport lost an arm in battle, commanded many fighting and merchant ships, married three times, and became an admiral, an exceptional navigator, and a relatively wealthy man.
However, as the book points out, he was not without flaws, and was undoubtedly as ambitious and unyielding and at times, self-serving, greedy, and ruthless as any others in his time. He also had his detractors, not the least of whom was John Smith, whose iron hold on Jamestown in its earliest days certainly helped to ensure the settlement's survival.
From a map that appeared in William Swinton, First Lessons in Our Country’s History. New York, NY: American Book Company, 1894
Jane Darlow, the author of the book, sets out to tell Newport’s story supported by evidence and historical detail. However, the factual accounts actually read more like a novel. In fact, Darlow tells us in the prologue that Newport’s story may sometimes seem like fiction, but it was not.
While the known facts may be sparse—Newport seems to have left no written record of his own—his story is true and compelling. Darlow sets out to piece everything together through contemporary letters and reports. Some of what we know is gleaned from lesser known reports and references in public documents, while other information is taken from the provisions in his will, an intriguing document that hints at a family drama and a wayward daughter.
Darlow includes a vivid account of his early life as a privateer in the Caribbean as well as earlier attempts to form settlements in America before his first voyage to Jamestown. The story also explains the full impact of his contribution to his own country and to the nation that would become the United States of America.
The book features two striking passages that are still relevant to our lives today. After all, the importance of reading history is for us to supposedly learn about the past and the lessons it can teach us. We forget these lessons at our own peril.
“…in December that year (1592), there was an outbreak of the plague in London. The authorities, afraid that people would leave the city and spread the disease, issued strict regulations to impose quarantine and restrict movement.”
We might wonder why in 2020, with all the experience and technology at our disposal, many world leaders still do not understand the importance of restricting movement during a pandemic.
“…it was recorded that ‘20 and odd Negroes’ had been landed in Jamestown from a Portuguese slave ship and were sold in the market place. They had arrived in August 1619, only one month after the House of Burgesses held its historic assembly in the church.”
As the author ruefully notes, “while the foundation of democratic government was still in its infancy, so too was the institution of slavery that was to cast such a dark stain on the noble idea.”